Strong photographs are visual uppers. No matter the context, be it gallery wall, billboard or glossy magazine, ultimately an objectively compelling image should and will caffeinate the senses, stimulate conversation, stimulate controversy perhaps and yes, at times, stimulate commerce.
Artistic, well-composed images are nothing new in terms of documenting sartorial sea changes; but now the very genre of fashion photography is changing, shape-shifting, re-sketching established parameters, challenging limits. Today’s vanguards are, of course, not the first to “revolutionize” the way we look at fashion photography, the way we consume it. And consumption is the word. We consume the image, we digest the message and, if all goes to plan, appetite whet, off we hungrily go as a well-trained Pavlovian bunch, to gorge ourselves on the product. Reverence is due to the mavericks that have blazed the trail before. This is fashion after all; nothing is ever truly new. Helmut Newton jolted the genre with an erotic charge that continues to pulse, Guy Bourdin stormed the Bastille (or the pages of Vogue) with his anarchic Charles Jourdan campaigns in the late seventies, Juergen Teller has been stripping fashion raw and bare for decades…
Guy Bourdin for Charles Jourdan, 1979
So why the change? Why the move away from sexed up PRODUCT PRODUCT PRODUCT towards an aesthetic altogether more ambiguous, more cerebral? Why the sudden penchant for the avant garde? In order to understand the subtle axis tilt occurring in image making, we need to widen the scope and address precipitating changes to the viewing paradigm. It isn’t necessarily a question of elevating fashion to the realm of art—that’s already been done. To blockbuster exhibitions on sacred ground (museums, our secular cathedrals of art) where designers are venerated by the pious as high priests of style, pilgrimages are made, homage is paid. We’re already down on bended knee here. Gaultier’s bustier is as much a part of the canon as Eames’ chair. It isn’t that fashion is considered lowbrow, then.
Laetitia Hotte for Kenzo
Perhaps it’s the hard sell notion of advertising that’s become tawdry—hawking one’s wares like a market trader, underscoring their inexorable consumptive nature; altogether too base to appeal to today’s market. So, the focus has shifted. Photographs (once mere visual aides in communicating the real deal) have themselves have become the draw, self-consciously so. It’s a question of taste. And of flattery, to which we are all apt to fall prey, particularly where fashion is concerned. Prestige brands, in making the choice to commission these artists to shoot their campaigns, are pandering to the connoisseur consumer culture that has come to define the marketplace. The mere acquisition of Veblen-goods is no longer enough. As Gwyneth tells us, luxury is a lifestyle, one which must be reinforced with every purchase. A lifestyle that fosters “curated” home libraries, “the creative class,” artisanal cheese, Vito Schnabel, and much of Brooklyn’s economy. These brands are now engaging us in some heady post-gallery-opening chatter and in doing so are tacitly assuming the role of arbiter of taste writ large. Not only do they get art, they get that we get art, too. We’re all just living the life, in style.
Charlie Engman for Thom Browne, 2013
Context aside, what of the images? This new wave of photographers is defined by its subversion of our understanding of the purpose of commercial photography. Their campaigns make no attempt to seduce us with the usual gloss and glamour, with glistening, be-bronzed, bare skin, with a red lip and a stiletto heel (which isn’t to say they aren’t beguiling, simply that they are impervious to our lust). Charlie Engman, Laetitia Hotte, Viviane Sassen: theirs are no visual sales pitches. They don’t make photographs about fashion; they create images which use fashion to call attention to themselves. Precedence here is given to formal experimentation, aesthetic tension; subjugated to compositional construction, product is no longer the focal point but plastic element, treated with the same neutrality as line or colour. Image first, ad a distant second. And there’s a certain riffing on art history at play that doesn’t go unnoticed. Overt nods to color field, de stijl, pop-art, op-art, constructivism, and collage: at once confounding and compelling.
Viviane Sassen is likely the best known of the group, thanks largely to her high fashion campaigns for designers such as Carven and Miu Miu. Though many would say her work skillfully straddles the art/fashion divide (or even challenges the very existence of such a divide), the photographer insists that art and commerce are mutually exclusive. “Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs, which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else. They aren’t meant to be that way…It’s a kind of puzzle that has to be solved” (to the BJP). To Sassen then, whose images are often brilliantly colourful, the delineation between the two facets of her oevre can be read as series of black and whites:
Fashion photography vs. Art.
High vs. low.
Art images are shot in Africa, fashion shoots in Europe,
Fashion photography is digitally, art photography analogue.
Fashion photography serves purpose, art photography need not?
Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010
We might question whether such a harsh viewing rubric is necessary. The elevation of one side needn’t dilute its counterpart, after all. Especially when considering the formal quality of Sassen’s campaigns (and the fact that her “fashion” images have quite comfortably hung alongside her “fine” images in many a museum and gallery show). Both model and clothes are utilized as neutralized, sculptural props for the purpose of creating a compelling image in her fashion work. Faces are often obscured, the individual becomes the archetype and there is a shift in focus from person to form. Her photographs can be disorienting at times, the eye first works to discern an arrangement of shapes before apprehending the subject of the images Which is what? A dress, a shoe, the image itself?
So are fashion images art or something else, as Sassen believes? David LaChapelle was after all, until quite recently, almost exclusively renowned for his capital F fashion work. Until, that is, he “made the switch” back to capital F Fine Art. An aesthetic about face? Questionable. Not least because LaChapelle will still occasionally turn tricks for the dirty dollars of corporate johns. LaChapelle’s fine art images bear the all the same visual hallmarks we have come to recognize in his commercial work- high gloss theatricality, intense saturation, hyper-realism, and, let’s face it, garishness.
If the language is the same then, perhaps it is more a case of semantics; a shift in the artist’s intention fueled by the long held myth of purity that gives “real art” its aura of authenticity. Art for its’ own sake rather than corporate propaganda. But if a contemporary painter is commissioned by a (well advised) hedge fund philistine to create a giant canvas for his even bigger TriBeCa loft, the art market doesn’t go on to question the aesthetic legitimacy of the work when, three years or one bad investment later, it pops up at Sotheby’s simply on the basis it was made to order. This product of the private patronage model is no less inherently valuable by virtue of having been handled by the filthy fingertips of commerce. At this point we could certainly delve deep into a post-structuralist discussion about the validity of the notion of artist as sole authority over meaning, etc., but why rehash last night’s pillow talk?
The need to enforce a nominal distinction between “fine art” and “commercial” or “fashion” photography feels arbitrary here (and somewhat outdated given our outright celebration cultural
mash-ups in other contexts). This new breed of fashion photography is less about editing our definition of the term, more about the cross pollination of the visual language. The accent has shifted, that’s all.
And as far as purpose is concerned, when do we ever really know what its all about?